The Divine Services

on the Nativity of Christ

Next to Pascha, the Nativity of Christ is the most joyous festival, and may justly be called the "Winter Pascha." The celebration of the Nativity of Christ was established very early, possibly already in the first century. But until the end of the fourth century, the Nativity of Christ was celebrated with His Baptism on the 6th of January (the 19th according to the New Style) and was called Theophany. Beginning in the fourth century, the Nativity of Christ began to be celebrated on the 25th of December (on the day of the pagan festival in honor of the "Invincible Sun"). At present, this takes place on the 7th of January according to the Gregorian Calendar. The Church prepares the faithful for a worthy celebration of the Nativity of Christ by a forty-day fast, which begins on the 15 th/28th of November, on the day after the commemoration of the Apostle Philip (hence "Philip's Fast"). Orthodox Christians spend the Eve of the Nativity of Christ in strict fasting. According to the Typicon, on this day one may only eat sochivo (boiled wheat with honey), so this day is called Sochel'nik.

On the Eve of the Nativity of Christ, the "Royal Hours" are performed. This divine service differs from the usual "Hours" by the reading of special "paremias" (readings from the Bible, primarily from the Old Testament) corresponding to the feast. Furthermore, the Apostol and Gospel are read.

The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is then performed with Vespers. At this Vespers, the stichera on "Lord, I have cried," depict both the inner significance and the outward picture of the Nativity of Christ. Thus, we hear how, with the Incarnation of the Son of God, the strife between God and men ceases, the fiery sword of the angel (blocking the entry to paradise) is turned back, and we receive access to paradise. We also hear of the doxology of the angels, of Herod's confusion, and of the unification of all men under the authority of the Roman emperor Augustus.

Additional paremias are read at Vespers. The first paremia (Gen. 1:1-13) speaks of the creation of man by God. The second (Num. 24:2-9, 17-18) speaks of the prophetic significance of the star out of Jacob and the birth of the Messiah, to whom all men will submit. The third (Micah 4:6-7, 5:2-4) speaks of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. The fourth (Isaiah 11:1-10) speaks of the Rod (i.e., the Messiah) that would come forth from the root of Jesse and of the fact that the Spirit of God would rest upon Him. The fifth (Baruch 3:36-38; 4:1-4) speaks of the appearance of God on earth and of His life among men. The sixth (Dan. 2:31-36, 44-45) prophecies the restoration of the Heavenly Kingdom by God. After the conclusion of the Liturgy, the priests stand before the icon of the feast in the middle of the Church, and glorify Christ with the singing of the troparion and the kontakion of the feast.

In the evening, on the Eve of the Nativity of Christ, a solemn All-night Vigil is served. This begins with Great Compline and the triumphant singing of the verses: God is with us, containing a prophecy of the birth of the Messiah (see Isaiah 7:14, 8:8-15 and 9:6-7). The stichera at the Litia express the triumph of heaven and earth, of angels and men, who rejoice over the descent of God to the earth and the spiritual and moral change in men that followed. The stichera for the Aposticha proclaim that a most glorious miracle has been performed: the Word is born incorruptibly from a Virgin and is not separated from the Father. After "Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart," the following troparion is sung.

Troparion

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, shined the light of knowledge upon the world: for therein they that adored the stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high: O Lord, glory be to Thee.

Before the reading of the Six Psalms at the beginning of Matins, the church choir joins with the heavenly choir to sing: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will among men.

In the Canon, the thought is expressed that He Who was born of the Virgin is not a simple man, but God, Who has appeared in the flesh on earth for the salvation of men, as was foretold concerning Him in the Old Testament. In the Canon, Jesus Christ is called the Benefactor Who has reconciled us with God, and the Father Who has freed us from the authority of the devil and saved us from sin, the curse and death (see the Canon of Matins below). After the sixth ode of the Canon and the Small Litany is sung the following kontakion.

Kontakion

Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him Who is beyond being, and the earth offereth a cave to Him Who is unapproachable; angels doxologize with shepherds, and Magi journey with a star; for a young Child, the pre-eternal God, is born for our sake.

On the very feast of the Nativity, at the beginning of the Liturgy, instead of the psalms "Bless the Lord, O my soul" and "Praise the Lord, O my soul," special antiphons are sung. The prokeimenon before the Apostol expresses the worship of Jesus Christ by all creation: Let all the earth worship Thee and chant unto Thee; let them chant unto Thy name, O Most High. The reading from the Apostol explains how, through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, we have become children of the Heavenly Father: But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ (Gal. 4:4-7). The Gospel reading tells of the adoration by the Magi of the Lord Who had been born.

Instead of "It is truly meet," the following zadostoinik is sung:

Zadostoinik

It would be easier for us, because free from all danger, to keep silence in fear: while it is hard indeed, O Virgin, in love to devise songs harmoniously put together. But do thou, O Mother, give us strength so that we may fulfill our good intent.

Canon for the Nativity

At the All-night Vigil for the Nativity of Christ, two canons are sung, written by the renowned hymnographers of the eighth century, St. Cosmas of Maiuma and St. John of Damascus. Both canons are saturated with sublime and profound thoughts, with beautiful images and majestic turns of speech: they are worthy of the solemnity of the feast.

The theme of the canon of St. Cosmas is that Christ, having become man, abides also as he was, as God. The writer of the canon, imbued with this event, glorifies with rapture and reverence the God-Man Who came down to earth, ascribing to him the names, properties and actions that were attributed to him by the ancient prophets. The inspired writer arouses others to joy and to a worthy meeting with the newborn King of glory, beginning the canon with the words of St. Gregory the Theologian: Christ is born, give ye glory (from a Nativity sermon by St. Gregory the Theologian), and at the end of the canon repeats the words of St. Chrysostom: A strange and most glorious mystery do I see. Saint John of Damascus, in his canon, depicts those salvific actions that took place for the human race because of the appearance of the Son of God in the flesh, events clearly revealed in the New Testament. We present here only the Canon of Cosmas of Maiuma. "Canons" always have nine "odes," but the second ode exists only in the canons of Great Lent.

 

Canon

Ode 1

First Canon. Tone 1

Irmos: Christ is born; glorify Him! Christ comes from heaven; go to meet Him! Christ is on earth; be exalted! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! And praise Him in gladness, O people, for He has been glorified!

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Man was made in the image of God, but he sinned, and lost immortality. He fell from the divine and better life, enslaved completely by corruption. Now the wise Creator fashions him again, for He has been glorified!

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

The Creator shaped man with His own hands, but when He saw us perishing eternally, He bowed the heavens and came down to earth, and clothed Himself completely in our nature, truly incarnate from a pure and holy Virgin, for He has been glorified!

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Wisdom, and Word, and Power, Christ our God is the Father's Son, His Radiance. He was made man, a mystery concealed from every spirit above or on the earth. He has won us for Himself, for He has been glorified!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Katavasia: Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ is from heaven, receive Him. Christ is on earth, be lifted up; sing to the Lord, all the earth and praise Him with joy all people: For He has been glorified.

Second Canon (written originally in iambic verse). Tone 1

Irmos: Of old the Master that works wonders saved His people, making the watery wave of the sea into dry land; and now of His own will has He been born from a maiden, and so He established a path for us whereby we may mount to heaven. We glorify Him Who in essence is equal to the Father and to mortal men.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Plainly foreshadowed by the burning bush that was not consumed, a hallowed womb has borne the Word. God is mingled with the form of mortal men, and so He looses the unhappy womb of Eve from the bitter curse of old. We men give Him glory.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

A star showed plainly to the Magi the Word that was before the sun, Who has come to make transgression cease. They saw Thee wrapped in swaddling clothes, within a poor and lowly cave, Who sharest all our sufferings, and in joy they gazed upon Thee, Who art at once both man and Lord.

Katavasia: Of old the Master that works wonders saved His people, making the watery wave of the sea into dry land; and now of His own will has He been born from a maiden, and so He established a path for us whereby we may mount to heaven. We glorify Him Who in essence is equal to the Father and to mortal men.

Ode 3

First Canon

Irmos: To the Son, begotten of the Father, before all ages and incarnate of the Virgin without seed in these latter days- To Christ our God, let us cry out: "Thou hast raised up our horn. Holy art Thou, O Lord!"

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Adam was made from dust, yet he shared God's life-giving breath. He was deceived by woman and fell, but from the dead, he saw Christ born of woman. He shouted, "For my sake Thou hast become like me. Holy art Thou, O Lord!"

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Thou hast assumed a body of lowly clay, O Christ. By sharing our humble flesh, Thou hast made our race partakers of divinity. By becoming mortal man yet remaining God, Thou hast raised us from death to life. Holy art Thou, O Lord!

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Make merry, O Bethlehem! Thou art the King of Judah's princes. Christ, the Shepherd of Israel, who rides on the shoulders of the cherubim, has come forth from thee for all to see. He has raised us from death to life, and reigns over all.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Katavasia: To the Son who before all times was born immortal of the Father, and in these latter days became incarnate without seed of the Virgin, let us cry out to Christ our God, Thou who hast raised our horn, Holy art Thou, O Lord.

Second Canon

Irmos: Graciously accept, O Benefactor, the praises of Thy servants, and bring down the despiteful and haughty looks of the enemy. O blessed Lord Who sees all, raise us up far above sin, and establish Thy singers firm and unshaken upon the foundation of the faith.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

The choir of shepherds abiding in the fields was overwhelmed by the strange sight they were counted worthy to behold: For they looked upon the all-blessed Offspring of an all-pure Bride; and they saw also the ranks of bodiless angels, who sang in praise of Christ the King, incarnate without seed.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

He Who rules the heights of heaven, in His compassion, has become such as we are, born of a Maiden who has not known man. The Word Who before was wholly outside matter, in these last times has assumed the material substance of the flesh so that He might draw unto Himself fallen Adam, the first-formed man.

Katavasia: Graciously accept, O Benefactor, the praises of Thy servants, and bring down the despiteful and haughty looks of the enemy. O blessed Lord Who sees all, raise us up far above sin, and establish Thy singers firm and unshaken upon the foundation of the faith.

Hypakoe. Tone 8

Heaven brought the first fruits of the Gentiles as a gift for Thee: A star summoned the wise men to the babe in the manger. They were amazed to see neither throne nor scepter, but only abject poverty. What is more humble than a cave? What is more lowly than swaddling clothes? Yet the riches of Thy divinity shone through all these. O Lord, glory to Thee!

Kathisma Hymn. Tone 8

Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad! The Lamb of God has been born on earth, Granting redemption to the world. The Word, Who rests in the bosom of the Father, Has come forth without seed from the Virgin. The wise men were struck with amazement, Seeing Him born as an infant in Bethlehem. Let all creation glorify Him!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Let the heavens rejoice...

Ode 4

Irmos: Stem and flower of the root of Jesse, Thou hast blossomed from the virgin, O Christ. From the mountain overshadowed by the forest Thou art come, made flesh from her that knew no man. O God, not formed from matter - glory to Thy power, O Lord!

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Thou art the Expectation of the nations, O Christ, foretold by Jacob in days of old. Thou have sprung from Judah's tribe, to plunder the might of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria, replacing error with faith acceptable to God. Glory to Thy power, O Lord.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Thou hast filled the star-gazers with joy, O Lord. They knew the hidden meaning of the prophet Balaam's words. Thou hast made the star of Jacob to rise. As the first-fruits of the Gentiles it led them unto Thee. Thou didst openly receive their precious gifts. Glory to Thy power, O Lord!

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Thou hast descended into the Virgin's womb, O Christ, like rain on the fleece and as raindrops watering the earth. All earth's rulers fall down before Thee: Ethiopia and the islands of Arabia, the kings of Tarshish, of Sheba, and the Medes. Glory to Thy power, O Lord!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Katavasia: Rod of the stem of Jesse, and flower that budded forth from a virgin, O most lauded Christ. From the mountain covered with darkness Thou art come, made flesh from Her that knew no wedlock, O God who art not formed from matter. Glory to Thy might, O Lord.

Second Canon

Irmos: Of old Habakkuk the Prophet was counted worthy to behold ineffably the figure and symbol of Christ's birth, and he foretold in song the renewal of mankind. For a young babe, even the Word, has now come forth from the Mountain that is the Virgin, unto the renewal of the peoples.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Of Thine own will, O Most High, Thou hast come forth equal to mortal men, Taking flesh from the Virgin, to purge the poison of the serpent's head. God by nature, Thou hast lead all from the gates that know no sun to the life-giving light.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

O you people that before were sunk in corruption, but now have escaped wholly from the perdition of the adversary, lift up your hands and clap them in songs of praise, honoring Christ alone, our Benefactor, Who in His compassion is come into our midst.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

O Virgin, sprung from the root of Jesse, thou hast passed beyond the boundaries of human nature, for thou hast borne the pre-eternal Word of the Father. According to His good pleasure, by a strange self-empting, He passed through thy womb, yet kept it sealed.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Katavasia: Of old Habakkuk the Prophet was counted worthy to behold ineffably the figure and symbol of Christ's birth, and he foretold in song the renewal of mankind. For a young babe, even the Word, has now come forth from the Mountain that is the Virgin, unto the renewal of the peoples.

Ode 5

Irmos: O God of Peace, Father of Mercies, Thou hast sent Thine angel of great counsel to grant us peace. We are guided to the light of the knowledge of God, and keeping watch by night, we glorify Thee, O Lover of Man!

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Thou wast registered as Caesar's subject, O Christ, in obedience to his decree. We were slaves of sin, and subject to the hateful enemy; by Thy poverty Thou hast set us free! Thou wast united to our nature in every way. Though we were formed from dust, by this communion we are made divine!

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Behold, the Virgin, as foretold of old, has conceived and given birth to God made man. She remains a virgin still. Through her we are reconciled to God. Let us sinners faithfully sing her praise: she is truly Theotokos.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Katavasia: O God of Peace, Father of Mercies, Thou hast sent Thine angel of great counsel to grant us peace. We are guided to the light of the knowledge of God, and keeping watch by night, we glorify Thee, O Lover of Man!

Ode 6

Irmos: The sea monster cast forth Jonah as it had received him, like a babe from the womb. And when the Word came to dwell in the Virgin and was made flesh, He came forth preserving her uncorrupt, for as He Himself was not subject to decay, He kept His mother free from harm.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Christ our God has come in the flesh. The Father begot Him from the womb before the morning star. He rules the heavenly hosts, yet now He lies in a manger of dumb beasts. He Who looses the tangled knots of sin now is wrapped in swaddling clothes.

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

A Son is born and given to the faithful, a newborn child of Adam's race, yet He is Father and Ruler of the world to come. He is called the Angel of Great Counsel. He is the Mighty God; He rules all creation by His might.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Katavasia: The sea monster cast forth Jonah as it had received him, like a babe from the womb. And when the Word came to dwell in the Virgin and was made flesh, He came forth preserving her uncorrupt, for as He Himself was not subject to decay, He kept His mother free from harm.

Kontakion. Tone 3

Today the Virgin gives birth to the transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One. Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him. The wise men journey with the star, since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a little child!

Ikos

Bethlehem has opened Eden: come let us see! We have found joy in a secret place: come, let us seize Paradise hidden in the cave! There the unwatered Root has appeared, blossoming with forgiveness. There is found the undug Well, from which David longed to drink of old. There the Virgin has borne a child, quenching Adam's and David's thirst. Let us hurry to this place, where the Eternal God was born as a little child!

 

Ode 7

Irmos: The children brought up together in godliness scorned the impious decree of the tyrant. They were not afraid of the threat of fire, but standing in the midst of the flames, they sang: "Blessed art Thou, O God of our fathers!"

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

The shepherds abiding in the fields were terrified by a dazzling sight. Around them shone the glory of the Lord. An angel shouted unto them, "Sing praises. The Messiah is born!" Blessed art thou, O God of our fathers!

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

After the angel spoke, the hosts of heaven suddenly cried out: "Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth, good will to men. Christ has shone forth." Blessed art Thou, O God of our fathers!

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

"What news is this?" asked the shepherds. "Has God's Messiah truly come? Let us go to Bethlehem." They saw Thee there, and worshipped Thee. With Thy mother, they sang: "Blessed art Thou, O God of our fathers!"

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Katavasia: The children brought up together in godliness scorned the impious decree of the tyrant. They were not afraid of the threat of fire, but standing in the midst of the flames, they sang: "Blessed art Thou, O God of our fathers!"

Ode 8

Irmos: The furnace moist with dew was an image prefiguring a wonder beyond nature, for it did not burn the children whom it had received, nor did the Fire of Divinity consume the Virgin's womb when it entered it. So let us raise the song: "Let all creation bless the Lord and exalt Him throughout all ages!"

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

The daughter of Babylon drove David's children from Zion with sword and spear. Now she sends her sons, the wise men, bearing gifts, to worship in David's city, where God has come to dwell. So let us raise the song: "Let all creation bless the Lord, and exalt Him throughout all ages!"

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Grief had silenced the harps. Zion's children would not sing in a foreign land. But now Christ has shone forth in Bethlehem destroying the din of Babylon's idolatries. So let us raise the song: "Let all creation bless the Lord, and exalt Him throughout all ages!"

Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee.

Babylon plundered Zion, and captured all her royal wealth. But now, with a guiding star, Christ lures her treasure-laden wise men back to Zion. So let us raise the song: "Let all creation bless the Lord, and exalt Him throughout all ages!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

We praise, bless and worship the Lord, singing and exalting Him throughout all ages.

Katavasia: The furnace moist with dew was an image prefiguring a wonder beyond nature, for it did not burn the children whom it had received, nor did the Fire of Divinity consume the virgin's womb when it entered it. So let us raise the song: "Let all creation bless the Lord and exalt Him throughout all ages!"

 

Ode 9

Magnify, O my soul, the most pure Virgin Theotokos, more honorable and more glorious than the heavenly hosts!

Irmos: I behold a strange, most glorious mystery! Heaven-the cave! The cherubic throne-the Virgin! The manger-the place where Christ lay, the uncontainable God, Whom we magnify in song!

Magnify, O my soul, God born in the flesh, from the virgin.

The wise men saw a new, uncharted star, following an unexpected course. Its brightness surpassed every star in heaven. It foretold the Messiah's birth: Christ, the King, born on earth in Bethlehem, for our salvation.

Magnify O my soul, The King born in the cave!

The wise men...

Magnify, O my soul, God, worshipped by the wise men!

The wise men...

Magnify, O my soul, God worshipped by the wise men!

"Where is the newborn Infant-King? We have seen His star," the wise men said. "We have come to worship Him." Godless Herod trembled with fury. In his raging madness he plotted to kill Christ.

Magnify, O my soul, the Lord Who revealed Himself to the wise men by a star!

Where is the newborn...

Magnify, O my soul, the pure virgin who gave birth to Christ the King!

Herod inquired where the star appeared which had led the wise men to Bethlehem, but after they worshipped Christ with gifts, that same star led them back to their own land, confounding their pursuer, that godless murderer of children.

Wise men and shepherds came to worship Christ, born in the City of Bethlehem.

Herod inquired...

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Magnify, O my soul, the most pure Virgin Theotokos, more honorable and more glorious than the heavenly hosts!

Katavasia: I behold a strange, most glorious mystery! Heaven-the cave! The cherubic throne-the Virgin! The manger-the place where Christ lay, the uncontainable God, Whom we magnify in song!

The Exapostilarion

Our Savior, the dayspring from the East, has visited us from on high, and we, who were in darkness and shadow, have found the truth, for the Lord is born of the Virgin!

 

Conclusion

 

And so, the Nativity hymns remind those praying how, during this memorable night, each creature hastened to bring its gift to the Saviour-King: heaven - a star; the earth - a cave; the wilderness - a manger; the angels - singing; the shepherds - worship; the Magi - gifts. Therefore, we too should not come to Him "empty-handed," but should bring to Him what is more valuable than anything else - our pure, believing hearts. For the high God has appeared on earth, in order to raise us up to heaven!

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